The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, al Qaeda's best-known mouthpiece and most charismatic spiritual leader, will leave a huge hole that the global terrorist network may find impossible to fill, regional and counterterrorism experts say.
But its implications for the deteriorating security in Yemen, where al-Awlaki was killed Friday in a U.S. drone attack, and for the future of the al Qaeda faction in that country are less clear.
"Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] is still a huge threat, still the No. 1 threat" among the terrorist network's global affiliates, said Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment think tank. "But the threat against the West is not as great as it was last week."
He said it was al-Awlaki's ability to reach out to vulnerable communities and individuals in the West and "recruit and influence people who were under the radar of intelligence and law enforcement" agencies that made him such a threat.
"That will be hard to replace," said Mr. Boucek, who researches security challenges in the Arabian Peninsula.
"He was a powerful and convincing orator" in his native English and in Arabic.
Al-Awlaki "was one of the first of the contemporary terrorist leaders to make the transition from cleric to propagandist to a key operational role," said Bruce Hoffman, director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. "Like [Osama] bin Laden, it is unclear whether Awlaki's remarkable trajectory in this respect can be duplicated."
Mr. Boucek noted that Yemeni officials believe AQAP's top bomb maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, was not among the dead in the missile strikes by U.S. drones Friday that killed al-Awlaki, contrary to reports over the weekend.
Al-Asiri, a 29-year-old Saudi, is thought to have made the devices used in:
• The air-cargo bomb plot last year, in which explosives were hidden in printer cartridges and shipped to the United States by FedEx.
• The underwear-bomb plot against a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas Day in 2009.
• The attempt to kill Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammad bin Naif, also with an underwear bomb, in August 2009.
"He is the most dangerous man in AQAP," Mr. Boucek said of al-Asiri. "It is scary to think about someone with those [bomb-making] skills, and even scarier to think about who he might be passing them on to."
He said the remaining leadership of AQAP, including al-Asiri and the group's supreme commander, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, "are also very focused on [attacking] the West."
"There are five or six Saudis who were at [the U.S. military detention center at] Guantanamo Bay" in the AQAP leadership, Mr. Boucek said. "They have a huge grudge against the United States."
Nonetheless, Mr. Boucek said, the deaths of al-Awlaki and his fellow American AQAP jihadist Samir Khan would be the death knell for al Qaeda's online magazine Inspire, seven editions of which have been produced by the network's Yemeni affiliate.
"Inspire is dead," he said. "They were the brains behind it. Samir Kahn did the layout. ... There was a third editor, but no one knows who he is, or even if he is real rather than just a pen name."
Globally, al Qaeda has only a handful of native English speakers among its spokesmen, according to researchers who have studied the network's propaganda activities.
Most agree that having the aging and decidedly uncharismatic Ayman al-Zawahri as its public face would not help the terrorism network's recruitment efforts. Al-Zawahri took charge of the global network after bin Laden was killed in a U.S. raid in Pakistan in May.
Yet, as heavy a blow as al-Awlaki's death may be to al Qaeda's global network, it is unclear what impact it will have on Yemen's deteriorating security. AQAP is based in Yemen, where U.S. and Yemeni forces have conducted operations against the terrorist group.
Earlier this year, before the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolt in Yemen, counterterrorism consultant Andrew Garfield worked on a study of public opinion and its impact on security in that country.
"We found, basically, that [perceived] U.S. support for [Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah] Saleh was actually bolstering Yemeni support for AQAP, because he is so unpopular," Mr. Garfield said.
He said that AQAP had learned "the lesson of Iraq" - in which extremists had alienated other forces opposed to the U.S. occupation, instead of working with them.
"Most people in Yemen are not natural supporters of AQAP," he said, adding they would make common cause with the terrorist group against a hated mutual enemy - Mr. Saleh.
Mr. Garfield said he doubted that most Yemenis are aware that the United States had called on Mr. Saleh to step down. "What they see is Saleh comes back, and then a U.S. strike kills these leaders ... the timing is unfortunate," he said.
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